Zodiac is a woefully underrated film from David Fincher, the same director that gave us Se7en and Fight Club. Roger Ebert said in his four-star review, “Zodiac is the All the President’s Men of serial killer movies, with Woodward and Bernstein played by a cop and a cartoonist…. What makes Zodiac authentic is the way it avoids chases, shootouts, grandstanding and false climaxes, and just follows the methodical progress of police work.” The cast (Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey Jr.) as well as the tone and script are all so tight and precise. It’s a delightful movie and immensely frustrating and entertaining. Now, onto the two films which I will be including in the Best Movie Bracket Competition.
Who doesn’t like Shawshank Redemption? This is always my go to answer when someone asks me for my favorite movie. I love it because it blends a gritty realism with an ethereal storytelling and a epic twist ending. If you have not seen it, shame on you. It used to be on TBS at least twice a week, but you need to buy it because once you watch it, you will have a new favorite as well. Just in case you haven’t seen it, I will try not to spoil the ending, but here is a quick summary. Click here if you’ve already seen the film and just want to see my recommendations.
The Shawshank Redemption (directed by Frank Darabont of The Walking Dead fame) is one of those movies whose estimation has only grown with time. It wasn’t a box office hit in 1994, but it was a critical success and received 7 Academy Award nominations but LOST in every category, being beat out for best picture by Forrest Gump. However, in 2008 (14 years after its original release) it took over the #1 slot as greatest film on the IMDb’s Top 250 from The Godfather and it still holds that place to this day.
Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) is our co-pilot and narrator for our long stay in Shawshank State Penitentiary. He admits that he belongs there for murder, calling himself the only guilty man in Shawshank. The year is 1947 and our central character is banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. We see him entering Shawshank to begin serving his two consecutive life sentences. The movie is based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Through the story, we experience a 20 year friendship between these two men.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine ode to male bonding than this drama spanning two decades from 1946 to 1967. When Andy arrives, he is subject to beatings, humiliation and all manner of horrors within the prison system. He endures the harassment seemingly unfazed. Slowly he learns to adapt, utilizing his talents as an auditor to garner favor from the powers that be. In time he inspires his fellow inmates, making friends with them, in particular Red who originally bet that Andy would be the first new inmate to crack.
The film is highlighted by several amazing performances. Morgan Freeman embodies his character with reverence, heart, and warmth. Tim Robbins is every bit his equal in a role that is more difficult to warm up to. If the actor appears a bit of an enigma, that is only because the character is meant to be that way. There is a quiet way about him that makes the other inmates uneasy and tells us and them that he does not belong there. Actor Bob Gunton is a villain for the ages as Warden Samuel Norton. A stern man that exploits the prison for his own gain as low-cost labor. He presents himself as a god-fearing man, although his true nature is gradually disclosed. The depth of his evil seems to know no bounds.
Like a flower growing up through a crack in the sidewalk, the narrative is uplifting even though we are presented with the most oppressive of surroundings. My personal favorite scene features Andy locking himself in the warden’s office and using the central microphone to blast an opera record through the grounds. As Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro echoes through the penitentiary, Roger Deakins cinematography captures the emotion as the inmates look upwards, embracing the audible gift. It is hard to describe the feeling, but the scene always brings me to tears. Shawshank is brimming with moments like this where the hope of the human soul triumphs over adversity in the most inspiring way.
So, assuming you love Shawshank like I do then you may be struggling to find movies that give you a similar sense of awe and inspiration. I hope to help with that by giving you a handful of recommendations based upon different aspects of Shawshank Redemption.
In Alien we follow a seven man crew en-route to earth on board the huge space freighter “Nostromo”. The crew is in cryosleep, but the on board computer interrupts the journey when a foreign radio signal is picked up. It originates from an uninhabited planet and the crew lands to investigate. There they make contact with an alien life-form…
What makes Alien so great is the constant feel of uneasiness. Right from the beginning you have a feeling that something is wrong. The crew is not particularly friendly towards each other, and you truly feel all the in-group tension. The ship itself is a huge worn out industrial-style maze of halls and corridors, and it feels more like a prison than a place to live. It is as if not only the alien but also the ship itself is against the humans. The alien itself is the scariest monster in history because it is a ruthless, soul-less parasite completely devoid of any human or civilized traits. The design of the monster is a stroke of genius. Sure it has a humanoid form, but it has no facial traits or anything else which could give away emotions or intentions. Its actions reveals no weaknesses nor civilized intelligence. The alien is more or less the opposite of everything human and civilized, plus the creature is more well-adapted to the inhumane interior of the ship than the humans who build it. To sum up, you then have a setting where the humans are caught in a web of in-group tensions, an inhospitable ship and the perfect killer which thrives in the ships intestines. You almost get the feel that the humans are the ones who are alienated to each other and to their own ship.
Ridley Scott tells the story with a perfectly synchronized blend of visuals and sounds. The actors do a superb job, portraying their characters in a subtle but very realistic way. The seven man crew is not a bunch of Hollywood heroes. They are ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. In this way they all seem so fragile when confronted with the enemy.
As mentioned the ship is very claustrophobic and Ridley Scott adds to the eeriness by using camera movement, lights and shadows in an effective way. The living quarters are bright and should be comfortable to the crew, but there is something sterile about it all. The rest of the ship is basically a huge basement. The music by Jerry Goldsmith underlines the eeriness so well, and the movie wouldn’t have worked without his score. Combined with the sounds of the ship it all adds to the uneasiness.
This is not a story about heroic people who boldly teams up against evil. It’s a story about ordinary people facing true fear, which is the fear without a face. The fear we can’t understand and can’t negotiate with, because its only goal is to survive on the expense of us. It’s a story where some people bravely fight back whilst others are destroyed by the terror. It’s a story where people are killed in a completely random way. There is no higher-order justice behind who gets to live and who dies. All seven characters are just part of a race where the fittest – not necessarily the most righteous – will prevail, and all seven characters start the race on an equal footing. None of them are true heroes, and none of them are true villains.
All the above makes Alien so great as a horror movie. The terror isn’t just the Alien itself, it’s the entire atmosphere which gets so effectively under your skin, that you just can’t shrug it off after the end credits like you can with so many other Hollywood horror movies. The title “Alien” doesn’t just refer to the monster, it is the theme of the movie and it is the feeling you have during and after the movie.
Continuing on the idea of watching the best movies that you can find on Netflix, I come to Pulp Fiction. Of course, Pulp Fiction is the film that simultaneously shot Quentin Tarantino into elite directorial status and cemented his place as one of the most innovative auteurs of all time.
His screenplay is divided into three stories, each introduced with a title card. First, there’s the story of the hit man who has to take his boss’s wife out for the evening while her husband is away. There’s the story of the aging boxer paid to throw a fight and the quest to retrieve a uniquely special family heirloom. Finally, there’s two hit men in a messy situation that needs a quick solution. These three separate stories are intertwined and not told linearly. Each story could easily stand on its own as a short film, but told as they are, each adds a further dimension to the others. The non-linear progression is not simply a gimmick, but rather an essential aspect of the film’s narrative. Continue reading Pulp Fiction (1994)→
I watched the 1997 film, Contact, again last night and I, like Ebert, was struck with its boldness as it seeks to weave together politics, faith, and science. As an HR Manager, I have advised employees that they would be better off not discussing those topics in the workplace because they are too controversial. I spent years speaking about faith as a pastor and I am unashamedly and evangelically Christian.
However, many people don’t know that before I was called into ministry, my desire was to be a scientist. I was vacillating between organic chemistry and theoretical physics particularly quantum mechanics. I have always had a deep love for science. I seek to observe our world much like I observe movies, to look beyond the visuals to mine deeper. I seek to find truth and beauty wherever it may be found and in whatever way it may be conveyed.
As a scientist, I must concede that there is a possibility that our universe and everything in it is not the production of an Intelligent Designer. But I have experienced something so magnificent and awe-inspiring that it continually reminds me of both my insignificance and my value. I cannot deny this and it will forever shape the way that I look at the world.
I think it is important to say that I don’t agree with Roger Ebert on everything. But I believe that he would agree with me on this. Whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, or a person of faith, I encourage you to watch this film. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, majestic, and rich. If you let it speak to you, I don’t think you will walk away unchanged. And what more can we ask of a film than that?
Based on a script by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, 1974’s Chinatown takes place in 1930s Los Angeles. Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman who claims that her name is Evelyn Mulwray. She wants Gittes to follow her husband, Hollis, and discover whether he’s having an affair. Gittes gets some pictures of Hollis with a young woman and hands them over to Evelyn. The next day, the pictures are published on the front page of the newspaper and Gittes is confronted by another woman (Faye Dunaway) who explains that she — and not the woman who hired him — is the actual Evelyn Mulwray. Gittes then learns that Hollis has turned up dead, drowned in a reservoir.
Gittes suspects that Hollis was murdered and launches his own investigation. This eventually leads Jake to Hollis’s former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston). Noah also happens to be the father of Evelyn and he offers double Gittes’ fee if Gittes will track down Hollis’s younger girlfriend. As his investigation continues, Gittes discovers that Hollis’ murder was connected to both the continued growth of Los Angeles as a city and a truly unspeakable act that occurred several years in the past. Nobody, it turns out, is what he or she originally appears to be. I really can’t say anything more without spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it before. Continue reading Chinatown (1974)→
A farming community learns that the upcoming harvest will result in a raid by a group of thieving bandits. An outspoken worker suggests that they should go to the nearest town and find a group of warriors who will protect them and help them defend their land…
Wait a second, I think I accidentally put A Bug’s Life into the DVD player instead of Seven Samurai… Sorry about that, I’m always getting those two confused. Obviously, I’m not saying that A Bug’s Life is a remake of Seven Samurai, but there is no doubt that it borrows some of its basis for a story on this original ensemble battle film, as did:
The Guns of Navarone (1961) The Magnificent Seven (1960) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) Bonnie and Clyde (1967) The Dirty Dozen (1967) The Wild Bunch (1969) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) The Road Warrior (1982) Die Hard (1988) Ronin (1998) Saving Private Ryan (1998) The 13th Warrior (1999) The Phantom Menace (1999) Three Kings (1999) Ocean’s Eleven (2001) The Inglorious Bastards (2009)
Clearly, this Akira Kurosawa masterpiece tapped into a concept or trope that was so simple it could be the basis for kids movies, westerns, and space comedies. It is the universal desire to see the strong protect the weak and the fact that with a varied group of warriors, we can each find our own place in the story. But just because Kurosawa did it first, does that necessarily mean that this movie is great? Why has this 3 hour and 27 minute epic held the attention of the cinematic community for over 60 years. Why is this movie regarded as highly as it is? Well, let’s recount the basics of the story’s theme along with some character analysis, then we’ll look at Kurosawa’s skill as a director which I believe sheds some light on what makes this film shine after 60 years of imitators have tried to recreate its charm, power, and craftsmanship. Continue reading Seven Samurai (1954)→
Vertigo is a psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as a former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, who has been forced into early retirement due to his discovery of crippling acrophobia and vertigo. Scottie is hired as a private investigator to follow a woman, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) who is behaving peculiarly. The film received mixed reviews upon initial release, but has garnered acclaim since and is now often cited as one of the defining works of his career. It is currently listed at #65 on the IMDb Top 250, which I think is a travesty. It shows you what type of list the IMDb Top 250 is, to see this film and others, like Citizen Kane, outside of the top 50, but The Dark Knight currently holds the #4 place. But in the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll, it replaced Citizen Kane as the best film of all time and has appeared repeatedly in best film polls by the American Film Institute.
I have to confess. This is one of those movies that you hear about and want to watch because others say it is so good. I’ve had it on my watch-list for years. This was one of the many Alfred Hitchcock films that my parents owned. But for some reason, unlike North by Northwest or The Birds or Psycho, I just never got around to watching this one. But I finally tackled this one on Saturday last year and have been digesting it ever since. This draft has literally been sitting in my project pile since March 2013 and if WordPress is correct in its count, I have made 67 different revisions in that time. Well, I finally watched it again tonight with the purpose of finishing what I started.
*** SPOILER ALERT *** Because of the nature of this film, I must warn anyone who reads further on that the rest of this review will contain spoilers. Please take the time to watch this classic before reading any more. *** SPOILER ALERT *** Continue reading Vertigo (1958)→